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How the USA Almost Went to War Over a Pig

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 2, 2022 3:04 am

How the USA Almost Went to War Over a Pig

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 2, 2022 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, our regular contributor, Anne Claire, tells the story of the time the United States almost went to war with the United Kingdom over the untimely death of a pig in what is now Washington State.

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Find that right plan for you. Visit And we return to our American stories. And up next, a story from a regular contributor, Ann Claire, about a fight over a pig that almost led to a war.

Take it away, Ann. In spite of its name, the pig war didn't have much to do with farm animals. Rather, the unfortunate demise of a pig, who ventured into the wrong garden in 1859, almost led to an armed conflict, another armed conflict, between Britain and the United States. In the early 1800s, multiple countries had sent explorers to the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. These explorers laid claim to territory in the New World. However, as there weren't markings on property lines, Britain, Spain, Russia, and the fledgling United States all ended up with overlapping claims. Now, by 1819, Spain was out of the running for Pacific Northwest real estate thanks to the Transcontinental Treaty.

President James Monroe's 1823 speech outlining the Monroe Doctrine warned Russia that seeking interest in North America wouldn't be tolerated. But this still left Britain and the United States having to work out their conflicting claims. Both nations had reasons why they felt their claim was more legitimate. On the British side, Captain James Cook had conducted important explorations of the coastal areas of the territory. One of his crew members, George Vancouver, returned and became the first non-native to explore Puget Sound, giving it its name in the process.

The Hudson Bay Company had been active in the area for years, establishing trade and putting down roots. However, the Americans had the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery exploration to point to, and the subsequent setting up of trading posts and forts. A decade before Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific, Thomas Gray, sailing from Boston, had explored and named the Columbia River. This whole idea, also of manifest destiny, that the United States not only would expand but was meant to expand to the Pacific, bolstered the voices calling for the Oregon territory to become officially American territory. Britain and the United States had already agreed to set their borders from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains along the 49th parallel. Why not, moderate American voices asked, agree to just keep the same line all the way to the Pacific. This would also conveniently give the United States Puget Sound, which would be America's first good deep water harbor on the Pacific.

But no, the Hudson Bay Company also recognized the value of Puget Sound. The 49th parallel was too far to the north for their plans. However, by 1843, so many American families had moved west along the Oregon Trail and began settling in the Oregon Territory, that they set up a provisional government to keep the territory in order.

Possessions, nine-tenths of the law, right? As the debate wore on, some American voices clamored that a border on the 49th parallel wasn't enough land anyway. President James K. Polk won his 1845 election on the slogan 5440 or fight. In other words, he called for a border that went up to 54 degrees 40 minutes, which would extend the United States border all the way north to Alaska or thereabouts, or else.

However, once he was in office and by a slim margin of votes, President Polk wasn't really feeling the fight part of his slogan anymore. So the conflict when it came was not at the dictates of Washington, D.C. In 1846, Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Oregon in London. This treaty finally positioned the border between the two nations on the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains west until it hit the water. Then the line would swing south through the middle of the channel, which separates the continent from Vancouver Island.

So they thought the problem was solved, except that this treaty did not specify which channel the border should pass through when it swung south. Harrow Strait near Vancouver Island or Rosario Strait near the mainland. And the San Juan Islands lay between those two straits. So naturally, both Britain and the United States claimed them as their rightful property and began trying to establish their claims through action.

The Hudson Bay Company at Fort Victoria, which was only seven miles from San Juan Island, has set up salmon curing stations on the island. When the United States claimed the island, the HBC upped its game and established the Bellevue sheep farm as well. American settlers, all 18 of them, established their own claims, settling in and building homes right in the middle of the sheep grazing land.

The settlers were confident that the U.S. government would recognize their claims, while the British were equally sure that these new residents were just squatters. Finally, on June 15, 1859, came the incident. An American resident of San Juan Island, Lyman Cutler, found a British company pig in his garden. He shot and killed it.

This didn't go over well. The British authorities threatened to evict all of the Americans from the island, except Cutler, whom they wanted to arrest. The Americans dug in their heels and refused to move. But they sent messages to the American authority in the territory, Brigadier General William S. Harney. He sent a company of 64 infantrymen under Captain George E. Pickett, who would later be a well-known name in the American Civil War.

Pickett encamped his men just north of the British sheep farm. Word of the situation reached Vancouver Island in the ears of the British governor, James Douglas. In response, Douglas sent Captain Jeffrey Phippshorn and his 31-gun steam frigate, the HMS Tribune, to San Juan Island. They were ordered to get rid of Pickett without bloodshed, if possible.

The Tribune was soon followed by the HMS Satellite with her 21 guns and the HMS Plumper with her 10, plus 46 Royal Marines and 15 Royal Engineers. Faced with almost one ship gun for each of his men, Pickett still refused to withdraw. He did, however, request reinforcements. In the meantime, the British did not take aggressive action, waiting for the commander of the British naval forces in the Pacific, Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baines, to arrive. Now, I don't know anything else about Admiral Baines, but I think his reaction to the situation speaks well of him.

Baines was appalled and advised Douglas that he would not involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig. On the island, Pickett received his reinforcements, 171 men, and a replacement commander in the form of Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey. Casey tried to parley with Baines, but after Baines refused to leave his ship, or maybe it was after seeing the 84 guns on Baines' ship, Casey also sent word asking for more reinforcements. So by the end of the month, 461 Americans were encamped in the woods just north of the sheep farm, and there they waited. And the British also waited, drilling and firing their guns into the island's bluffs.

Among all the absurdities of this situation, officers on both sides attended church together on the satellite and socialized. At last, the story of this conflict reached Washington D.C. and the then President James Buchanan. He hurriedly dispatched General Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812 and also a veteran of calming down border disputes. In the end, both parties agreed to withdraw their reinforcements. Britain and the United States would share San Juan Island in a joint occupation until the matter was finally resolved.

The Americans would leave one company of soldiers on the island, and the British would keep one warship in Griffin Bay. Now this temporary solution worked, though with one thing and another keeping the decision-makers occupied, including our civil war, the temporary solution dragged on for 12 years. In 1871, Britain and the United States agreed to let Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany arbitrate their dispute.

He gave the project to a three-man commission who met on the subject in Geneva for nearly a year. They ruled in favor of the United States. This set the final boundary between the U.S. and British, now Canadian, territory. And so, the Pig War ended. A war in which the only casualty was a pig, and in which diplomacy finally triumphed. And a terrific job on the production by Monte Montgomery. And a special thanks to Ann Claire for telling us what is a seemingly humorous but important point to make about border disputes, and how they change, and borders have been battled over for centuries over big and small things.

Even a pig. And by the way, if you have stories, history stories yourself, send them to So many of you are actually closet historians, or are actually history teachers. Send them in. Send them to

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Whisper: small.en / 2022-11-07 14:16:03 / 2022-11-07 14:18:45 / 3

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